Anyone who’s ever spent a little time in a nursing home or senior’s residence, speaking with residents has no doubt had a chance to delight in the pleasures of the past. As we all know, times were often hard. But there were sprinkles of joy throughout. And nestled amidst the myriad elements speaking of the often this foreign way of life, are valuable lessons we can apply to our lives in the here and now.
Learning From the Past
Where I live in Placentia, Newfoundland and Labrador, shared words have highlighted the joys and woes of lives lived decades ago. They touched on harvesting the bounty of gardens and the berrypicking trips amidst the lengthening shadows of August and September. Along with fishing and purchasing food stocks in the autumn, these actions helped to ensure a secure source of food over the winter.
In hearing these words, the concerns of the past invariably merge with present ones. The reminiscences of routines and traditions from previous years are inherently intertwined with current and widespread ideas and concerns for food security. How can such connections inform our understanding and ability to address food security and related community sustainability?
Right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, these issues gather around sometimes intractable concerns. We’ve the lowest number of farms, we only have a 2-3 day supply of food if the ferries are delayed, we import 71% of the food we eat, 13.4% of households are food insecure,1 more than 26,000 (or 5% in the province) rely of food banks, our province has the highest rate of heart attacks in Canada, we generally eat fewer veggies and fruits, and we have the highest rate of diabetes in the country. Many places around the world may not share these specific difficulties, but they will likely have their own share of challenges.
Responding to Food Insecurity
However stubborn and grave the problems, solutions can still be found in initiatives that begin close to home, extending outward to encompass the wider world. So, closer to home, my experiences when speaking with seniors spoke of how the daily routines of gardening and food gathering, such as berrypicking, sought to achieve what we now regard as food security.
At present, if we peer behind homes in Placentia or other communities, we often spy gardens that offer the fruits of labour—beets, potatoes, tomatoes, turnips and so on. Around Newfoundland and Labrador, a host of communities have also chosen to plant a community garden. To do so is a potentially an enriching, motivating and educational endeavour. Going to our plot at the community garden, we’ll meet friends, exchange ideas, and maybe even learn a new trick.
Harmonising Food System
Food First NL has also identified a five part food system that must work in harmony. Consisting of production, distribution, access, consumption and disposal, it is essential for us to ensure all components of this system are working smoothly and in harmony. If some element of distribution is impeded, for us, say the ferries are blocked by high wind, then the access to the food will be affected. Likewise, in some other part of the world, perhaps the distribution of the food has been negatively affected. Then, consequently, so will the access to that food. As you can see, our focus needs to be guaranteeing all elements work together. If so, our relationship with our food is then sustainable.
Before doing so, there are many things we’d need to improve in the province and country as a whole. We need to improve our support for farmers to make it a viable way of life. We need to strengthen our controls on the use of pesticides, the cost of feed and fertiser, seeds and more. There is a lot of room for improvement.
Still, there is always hope. Much as people have done in the past, residents and visitors to the community can have an increasingly assured access to safe and nutritious food. Alongside such efforts, for the community in general, by maintaining the heritage of gardens, we are collectively working to enhance different elements of the food system. We’re taking a further step toward food security and by extension, the sustainability of communities.
A Way to Sustainability
Invariably, food security and sustainability work hand in hand. As enshrined in the Sustainable Development Act (SNL2007 CHAPTER S-34) for Newfoundland and Labrador, sustainability refers to “the capacity of a thing, action, activity or process to be maintained indefinitely in a manner consistent with the future use, enjoyment and development of natural resources.” When we work towards food security by planting and growing our food, we can also help make certain that subsequent generations have access to the food they need to survive and thrive in their community.
The reminiscences of seniors who may now live in places such as the Lions Manor Nursing Home are perhaps reminders for us all. Their words signal that efforts made decades ago hold the key to current concerns. It is in our interest to cultivate the growing connections between past and present, for such connections can yield both the sustainability and contentment of our communities.
1Food insecurity means a household has an insecure access to adequate food due to financial constraints.
I’m in such awe of them. I look at their rough and straggly bark, some leaning over, old webs strung raggedly amidst the branches and maybe some Old Man’s Beard, a type of lichen, clinging to them. I think of how steadfast and noble are our boreal trees and how much they must know.
I lean against one tree, the other one that used to stand alongside it, now fallen, acquiescing to the gentle songs of decomposition and decay. I can’t help but think of the heritage of these trees. The depth of human heritage can stretch back to around 11.6-5.3 million years ago, and that’s respectable enough.
Homo sapiens are the most recent evolutionary spin-off of that line—that’s us. We can only lay claim to 315,000 years since we broke off and went our own way. Despite it being a long time, in stark contrast, trees can call on a much deeper past—around 400 million years, in fact. To compare the two is impossible.
So, for me, trees must be far superior to humans. What had changed in their biology or ecology when they were at 12 million years, let alone 315,000 years, and then simply discarded? We’re mere infants by comparison.
The boreal forest regally crowns the planet, stretching across 8 more northerly countries—Canada, China, Finland, Japan, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States. It covers approximately one-third of the world’s land surface—more than 15.3 million square miles. For us in Canada, the boreal forest lays claim to around 60% of the country.
Patience is a Virtue
Several trees make their home in Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular, the province where I live. The balsam fir is one of the primary trees in the boreal forest that covers the entire province. The fir is often joined by the black spruce, larch or tamarack as it’s sometimes known, pine, as well as deciduous trees including the trembling aspen, balsam poplar and various types of birch. The first three are common on the trails where I walk.
Throughout the year, the trees must periodically withstand seemingly gale force winds, often over 100 km/h. The day after such a storm, I’ll walk along the trail and invariably there will be trees bent over or
lying strewn over the trail.
Photograph of blown down balsam firs (Source: Lee Everts).
The circle of roots at their base has simply lifted as the tree toppled over. The balsam fir and the black spruce tend to have shallow root systems, thus allowing them to be readily thrown over by the wind.
I love walking through certain parts of the woods to see the rich variety of growth. Often, there’s moss and a variety of plants on the floor of the woods, the moss ringing the base of the trees. The moss has also often enshrouded the rocks and boulders, sometimes trees taking root on their surface. There are other sections where it is virtually carpeted with young balsam fir.
Photograph of balsam fir seedlings on the floor of the forest (Source: Lee Everts).
Photograph of moss covering boulders (Source: Lee Everts).
They are unbothered by the lack of sunlight, as balsam fir are known to be shade tolerant. But as a result, the balsam fir can readily respond to the challenges posed by the wind. As soon as the wind overturns one of the more mature firs, several of those smaller firs will quickly begin to savour the greater amounts of sun now reaching them and begin to grow.
So, there’s almost a type of patience inherent in such a behaviour. Some may say, but they’re just trees. What would they know about patience? But it’s more accurately a way of being that exemplifies patience. It’s demonstrative of the great stretch of time trees have had to realise or learn it is best to wait. It’ll work. For the younger trees, their time will eventually come. That’s how evolution works after all.
Display of Determination
While the balsam fir has a method for addressing adversity, the black spruce does its own thing. For the black spruce, its winged seeds that had fluttered to the ground from its parent’s cone simply waited for more ideal conditions, in this case, light, in which to grow. To my eyes, it was a reflection of sheer determination. It’s a quality shared with trees in general.
Under normal conditions, the Black spruce gets the job done. It possesses female cones and male cones, making it monecious. The female cones with the eggs cells, where the seeds develop, tend to grow on the upper 1 to 2 metres of the tree. Meanwhile, the male cones containing the pollen are lower down. In late May or early June, the male cone swells and opens, the pollen then being caught by the wind. If all goes well, that pollen will reach the female cones which are simultaneously opening. And its planned to ensure genetic viability is maintained, as the one trees pollen reaches another spruce’s female cones.
Photograph of a red squirrel happily eating a cone (Source: Lee Everts).
For the larch, it’s much the same, except the male and female cones appear on the same branches. They are active in different years. Although the male flowers are borne on 1- or 2- branchlets, the female ones are borne on 2- to 4-year on ones. So, it maintains its genetic viability.
Fires Offering a New Beginning
As I rambled along the trail, contemplating the trees reproducing, I was put in mind of the keen resilience, in particular, of the Black spruce. You see, the Black Spruce has something else up its sleeve. There are times when the woods are susceptible to fire. That’s just a natural part of life. However, the Black spruce is prepared for such an occasion. The waxy exterior on their cones are actually readily melted by fire. Jump starting the new generation of trees, the seedlings are then released onto a seedbed fire-cleared of any existing vegetation. This would’ve normally impeded the new growth. Fire is always regarded as utter destruction and devastation, but after 300 million years of evolution, for a Black spruce, it’s a new beginning.
Pausing along the trail, I take a seat on a fallen fir. Looking all around me, I’m in a section of the woods where the balsam fir is more dominant, just every now and then I see a spruce. Yet when I ponder the woods, I feel all the trees exhibit a strength. They know what to do when they meet various forms of adversity—wind, fire or otherwise. Every year, the cones on the trees grow, time passes and then the little buds appear. It’s magical. They always seem to stand impervious to the elements, whether rain or snow.
They’ve had hundreds of millions of years to work things out. Something that didn’t work, perhaps a bad choice, was soon whittled away over the centuries, leaving trees who simply and peacefully, know how to be. We need only listen and indeed learn.
“Pale Blue Dot.” The earth can be seen in the middle of the ray of light on the furthest right. Given the size of the image, the earth appears as only a mere pin-prick.
As of the 21th January, 2022, it was 23.307 billion kilometres from earth. That means the Voyager I space probe is now the most distant artificial object from home and indeed the first to have left our solar system. Though these may seem practical words merely stating a fact, they convey an awe-inspiring gravity.
Launched on the 5th September, 1977, Voyager I spent decades within our solar system collecting data—discovering a thin ring around Jupiter and two new Jovan moons were but two of its discoveries. Carl Sagan, a scientist of astronomy and astrophysics was a member of the NASA team responsible for Voyager I. He had a particular idea.
The idea was that before Voyager I crossed the boundary into interstellar space1, NASA would transmit a critial command sequence to its computers. The instruction would be for the Voyager I’s camera to turn back towards earth and take one final snapshot of us before it left. The resulting picture was taken and it became known as the “pale blue dot,” a phrase coined by Sagan. It was simple enough. However, while the subsequent image of our planet only appeared to be a few millimetres in length, its meaning was orders of magnitude greater.
With a feeling of supreme humility, one gazes at this photograph. Life continues on that pale blue dot and has for millions of years. For humans, late arrivals to the biosphere, there are constant conflicts and difficulties with which we contend. They involve an innumerable number of people on our planet. Social and political struggles afflict us in every way. Many times, it is the ravening hunger for power and money that lies at its heart. Too many lives are lost in its pursuit.
Likewise, countless joys have been played out on that pale blue dot. People giving and sharing kindness and exhibiting compassion and dignity to others in myriad ways, sometimes breathtaking in their sheer wholeheartedness. This has made every difference, ensuring that no matter how distraught and downtrodden our lives may become, there are always means by which we can overcome.
So, when we cast an eye to the pale blue dot, even the most steadfast and striving dictator must pause. For it is with an eye to this image that we are reminded how we are truly one. This is the case, despite the innumerable differences and disparities of colour, religion, economic status, sex, way of life that unhinge our lives. However, those differences do not matter.
Ultimately, we are life. The trees, birds, insects, reptiles, mammals, single-celled species. All of us. Of course we are different. And periodically, we may be wooed by a feeling of power granted by our position economically, militarily, or politically. Still, before we act, it is vital we remember that this creature, two or four-legged we intend to impose our rule over shares this lonely planet amidst billions of light years all around—and has done so for a very long time.
We may be alone in this immense universe. But we are together, bound innately—genetically in fact. Scientists have learned that 99.9 percent of the genetic information in a human’s DNA is common to all of us. Whatever is not included accounts for the remaining 0.01 percent differences in things like hair, eye and skin colour, height and susceptibility to particular diseases. It’s barely anything. Still, one, we are.
In fact, we apparently share 98.7% of our genetic sequencing with chimpanzees. But more surprisingly, we actually share 90% with the Abyssinian house cat and on average, 85% with mice. That’s fairly close. More notably, we share more than 50% of our genetic information with plants—60% with a banana. We’re more than half plant.
When we look upon that tiny blue dot, it seems so unimportant, a minuscule bit of nothingness. Over the thousands of years we have been here, each and every one of us has sought to live a life of meaning, full and replete with both exuberant joys and unfortunate woes of every kind.
We can let Carl Sagan have the final word.
— Carl Sagan
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan, Carl (1997). Pale Blue Dot. United States: Random House USA Inc. p. 6-7. ISBN 9780345376596
For centuries, we’ve been left spellbound, listening to stories of ships disappearing without a trace. With bated breath, we hear of boats that have been sighted, eerily surrounded by glowing lights, on fire, or sailed by men rowing and screaming. It sends a chill down our spines. We have entered into a troubled world, one where stories such as the Flying Dutchman ensure that everything we thought we knew is quietly turned on its head. We are riveted.
Placentia Bay is not unaccustomed to the strange and mysterious. It is home to many stories of what are known as “phantom ships.” Stories emerging from centuries past speak of unworldly sightings. One told of a ship with black sails that was seen on a calm night. The crew on another ship apparently remarked on the white foam flying from her bow. Another near Harbour Buffett, spoke of how two men on night watch aboard a schooner saw a dory rowed by two men in oilskins. The dory travelled beside the schooner all night, before it “withered away into thin air.”
These accounts come from a time when many customarily travelled by boat. So, many of the stories tied to the phantom ships were actually used practically. Often, they foretold of the weather. There was a phantom ship that would appear near Davis Cove (near Castle Gut), in western Placentia Bay. It is said the appearance of the phantom steam-powered pirate ship would warn of an oncoming storm. In Brule, the sight of a phantom ship and its lights accompanied by the sound of men working and an engine also foreboded of bad weather.
So, here we had stories of mysterious ships that were a part of the thoughts and ideas people exchanged. They complemented well with the workaday life of the people, speaking of valuable information they could use while on the sea.
Given that more people were on the sea, there would’ve likely been numerous sightings. One can imagine everyone discussing the weird things they had seen or heard while busily unloading their catches. Then, as now, people would’ve been fascinated by stories that left them with a question of what happened. “It disappeared?” they would’ve said, aghast at the thought and no doubt, now intrigued.
No one likes unanswered questions or unknowns. The only option would’ve been to imagine what likely could’ve occurred. We do that all the time as we try to fit the pieces together in what appears to be the most sensible way. Every new sighting would’ve added a dash of spice to the story. By our nature, we instinctively seek an explanation, answers to somehow fill in the empty spaces to the story.
For some, these stories allowed people to exercise their deductive reasoning, to derive a conclusion from something that is known or assumed. What made sense, they would ask. We are all eager to understand the inexplicable. Near Lear’s Cove on the eastern shore of Placentia Bay came the story of the Ada Maud Best (more likely the Ada and Maud). It apparently left with three men, but returned empty, drifting alone. As a result, many believed it to be haunted. It was owned by the Best family of whom Clarence, Kenneth, and George Best, sons of Joshua Best, the owner, were among those lost.
There is little doubt that most would’ve likely deduced that a horrible accident had indeed claimed the lives of the fishermen. Perhaps an unexpected storm. Members of the community likely exchanged possible stories of what had likely occurred. However, time and story are commonly required to soften the details of a rather unpleasant affair. So, casting it with a light of intrigue and mystery may have somehow helped to diminish the very harsh realities of the sea.
Ultimately, we are often left with the unknown, a situation that is as alarming as it is alluring. We may shrug our shoulders, accepting how there are countless things we will neither ever understand, nor comprehend. In our blissful ignorance, with starlit eyes, we are left to merely wonder.
Every morning, I trudge up the trail from the Placentia beach up to Castle Hill, a National Historic Site owned and operated by Parks Canada. It was a fortress, Fort Royale being the main fort, that was built by the French in 1693 when they owned this little bit of real estate. The trail, itself, was used by the beleaguered soldiers to transport the needs of the fort—cannons, cannon balls and so on.
I walk up the rocky path that leads towards a stairway. It traverses a stream that, dependent on the weather, will either be largely dry or positively gushing following a rainfall. Alongside the stairway is a Black spruce tree where I always pause. It’s fairly tall, around 7 m. Covered in rough bark, it bears little sign of any branches, in part because any ones obscuring the stair would’ve been cut.
A Rich Aroma
The primary reason I pause is to take a moment to breathe in deeply the lovely aroma of the sap accumulated on its trunk. It’s intoxicating. In times past, people working in the woods used to chew it as a gum. A friend of mind told me it’s called “frankum,” a Newfoundland term derived from Frankincense. But the resin wasn’t only a part of everyday life. For First Nations people, the resin was also powdered and placed on wounds in order to speed the healing process. For the Pima people living in the southwestern portion of the United States, Black spruce occupied a deep part of their mythology.1 We learn of how the father and mother of the Pima people actually survived the flooding waters by floating on a ball of Black spruce pitch. How’s that for ingenuity? But this is only one of the attributes that make the Black spruce one of the jewels of the forest.
To the scientifically minded, the Black spruce is officially known as Picea Mariana, with the Picea deriving from the Latin word Pix, which means pitch. Pitch is the dark coloured resin that was once used to caulk ships. The Mariana refers to “of Maryland.”2 It’s actually part of the Pinaceae family, the other main members being pines, firs, cedars, hemlocks, larches. Part of the Taiga or Boreal forest which encircles the globe, including the United States, Canada, Greenland, Russia, and everywhere in between, the area over which the Black spruce ranges is large. It extends from Massachusetts to northern Labrador on the Atlantic and west across Canada to west coast of Alaska and south to Wisconsin, southern Minnesota and southern Manitoba.
The Black spruce is a strong and sturdy tree. It can withstand considerably low temperatures. It’s mean annual temperature range extends from 7°C (45°F) in southern regions to -11°C(13°F) in northwestern Canada. But it’s average January temperatures are far lower, from -30°C(-22° F) to -6°C(21°F) at the southeastern edge of its range. The annual precipitation where Black spruce grow diminishes from east to west with a potential high in the Atlantic provinces of 1,520 mm (60 in) to 150 mm (6 in) in western Alaska. The annual precipitation ranges from 380 to 760 mm (30 to 30 in) in most of the black spruce range.
Black spruce trees are among a number of conifers that are capable of growing in what would seem the most inhospitable locations. Tenaciously clinging to cliffs or gallantly growing from the tops of rocks with the barest of moss for support, the Black spruce will be resolute. They prefer to grow in wet organic soils. Although, they can be found in variety of soil types from deep humus through to clays, loams, sands, coarse till, boulder pavements and shallow soil mantles over bedrock. With this said, Black spruce are most productive in dark brown to blackish peats.
Black spruce are also monoecious (i.e. they have unisexual reproductive organs or flowers, with the organs or flowers of both sexes borne on a single plant). Known as gymnosperms meaning “naked seed,” the Black spruce customarily produces erect, cylindrical, and green or purplish, the female flowers (ovulate strobili or cones) that appear in the upper meter of the crown. Meanwhile, ovate shaped male flowers (staminate strobili or cones) range in sizes from 12 to 20 mm (0.5 to 0.8 in) grow on the outer branches of the crown, just below the zone of female flowers.
The cones are capable of remaining on a tree for several years. Black spruce are also considered to be serotinous, meaning that over time, the cones will open slowly, but with a wildfire, will do so quite rapidly. So, out of devastation will rise a new beginning. The seeds that fall from a cone are also viable for many years. The miniscule winged seeds flitter to the ground where they germinate and grow. And they really do grow. Black spruce can grow up to 40 metres and live for a respectable 1,000 years.
In Ancient Times
The reproductive facet of the Black spruce tree was also hailed and hallowed by many in the past. In ancient Egypt, it was considered the tree of nativity while in Greece, the Black spruce was sacred to Artemis, the lunar goddess of birth. The Gauls regarded the Black spruce tree in association with the goddess of the new moon, called Kaineides, which meant “to bring new things.”
Its association with “new things” and birth meant that to the people of northern Asia, it was a cosmic tree. In Europe, the people would erect a Black spruce tree as a maypole, intertwined with wreathes of flowers, all to symbolise the Goddess.
The pagan world also linked the Black spruce with the sun. During winter solstice, it was decorated with all sorts of sweets, fruits, gifts and candles. Later in a Christionised world, this was replicated to eventually become the Christmas tree we all know and love.
The Black spruce is full of surprises. It is even commonly used as an essential oil for the purposes of soothing therapeutic respiratory troubles, for anti-inflammatory difficulties, as well as to ease and to improve overall skin health.
The Black spruce is a multifaceted and in countless ways, reaches into our spirits, strengthening, enlightening and enriching us. It is indeed the Black spruce, along with the balsam firs, we refer to as tuckamores, those trees that exhibit the fortitude, perseverance and determination we all strive to emulate. With true deference, we must recognise the value and merit of this humble tree quietly and solemnly takes up its proud place in our beloved boreal forest.
1Although one is never certain, but this suggests that the origin of this myth came from a time when Black spruce once grew in the region where the Pima people lived. Their primary region was the American southwest desert regions in southern Arizona and northern Sonora, Mexico of the United States. This is currently outside of the range for the Black spruce.
2Apparently in the 18th century, botanists thought Maryland covered much more territory than it does today, hence the name.
With the coming of spring, we feel the deep connections that innately bind us to the gentle and gradual changes our world magically undergoes. We witness the beauty of our many plants patiently waiting as spring nears. In silence, they remain poised with a buoyant energy ready and eager to be released. Come spring, their buds soon turn a vibrant and rich greens as they begin to flourish and grow. Likewise, the birds flock to our various feeders or peck at seed strewn on the ground. This they do, even while they pair up, readying to rear the next generation—endless hours of feeding, comforting and protecting. But amidst this discourse with nature, let’s take a moment to turn our heads skyward. And when we do, we note how, like here on our small planet, there are many things happening at springtime in the galaxy1and the universe beyond.
Throughout the year, armed with a telescope, we gaze heavenward and spy on countless stars—Pleiades, Cassiopea or Andromeda. However, during the spring in particular, we are privy to a true spectacle. At this time, when we peer beyond the Milky Way, our home galaxy, we can spy a vast cloud of galaxies known as the Realm of the Galaxies, a dramatic name that expresses the true grandeur of our universe.
The Realm of the Galaxies is also known by its more practical name, the Coma-Virgo galactic cluster. It is a name borne of the fact the Realm of Galaxies spans the borders of the constellations of Virgo and Coma Berenices. Just to orient ourselves, what is known as the Local Group is essentially the term used to describe where we live—our neighbourhood, so to speak.
We’re part of the Milky Way galaxy, but just around the corner, we’ll find the Magellanic Clouds and Andromeda galaxy. All are members of the Local Group, which is big, containing a little less than forty galaxies. Although this may appear immense, in the Realm of Galaxies, the Virgo Cluster alone boasts about 2,000 galaxies. The Virgo cluster of galaxies is around 60 or 70 million light years from the Milky Way (a light year is understood as the distance that light travels in a vacuum in one year is approximately 9.46 trillion kilometers). While the Milky Way contains maybe around two billion stars, by comparison, the Virgo Cluster likely holds trillions of stars. It’s mind-boggling.
The Virgo Cluster is home to several startlingly beautiful groups of galaxies, two of which are a part of Markarian’s Chain. Near the middle of this chain are two other galaxies, known as Markarian’s Eyes. Still further away, around 320 million light years, is the centre of the Coma Cluster. While it is difficult to conceptualise, it is absolutely heaving with galaxies, perhaps as many as 10,000 or more. At its centre is a cloud of gas, heated by extremely high temperatures. The majority of the galaxies within the Coma cluster are ellipticals, with an abundance of dwarf and giant ellipticals (a dwarf galaxy is a small galaxy of about 1,000 to several billion stars while an elliptical galaxy is shaped like a stretched-out circle).
We look up and are in awe of the pageant of planets and stars before us. For many of us, the sheer size and the distances of these seemingly boundless galaxies defy our understanding. They are breathtaking. And strangely similar, when we look around at the various plants, trees, and animals that come to life during the spring, here on our home planet, they are equally extraordinary and captivating in their complexity.
Whether the tiniest bud of an alder surrounded by spruce and fir or a massive star going supernova somewhere in the Virgo cluster, they are a reflection of spring. Both occupy two extremes of the gallant spectrum in our universe, ultimately unified, together as one.
1. Any numerous large-scale aggregate of stars, gas, and dust such as the Milky Way.
As the sun sets, anyone driving along the Cape Shore highway north to Placentia couldn’t miss it. Like a glowing ember, it’s red rock warms the heart, giving way to wonder. It soundlessly beckons us to understand its deep history. When we do, it reveals a storied past that reaches to a time long before any human set foot on islands such as Merasheen or Red Island. These rocks that comprise the islands are not dormant and empty. Rather they are representative of the resonant spirit within our landscape.
Millions of years ago, the earth began to write the story of the land below Placentia Bay. No doubt, it was quiet at times. To be sure, there were no birds yet to punctuate the rare silences that defined the period. They had yet to come. For much of the time, however, it would have been a time defined by turbulence with roaring and explosive ejections jettisoned from the cracks in the earth. Molten lava would have seeped out, hotly glowing before it gradually cooled.
Each of the islands have their own identifying characteristics, the result of a unique story stemming from their origins. In very much more recent times, the islands came to be the home of many generations who plied their trade in the fishery, wood-cutting and gardening, the pillars of the time. Although, countless millennia earlier, these islands had a different story to tell.
Photograph of Merasneen (Source: https://alchetron.com/Merasheen%2C-Newfoundland-and-Labrador)
We would have to close our eyes to imagine the maelstrom of geological events that defined the time. Owing to an explosive past, Merasheen Island and the Ragged Islands are composed of something called Hadrynian basaltic (751-833 Million Years Ago — Mya) rock. That simply means it was a rock formed from the solidification of molten rock. It’s an intermediate composition between dactite (a volcanic rock formed by rapid solidification of lava that is high in silica and low in alkali metal oxides) and rhyolite (the most silica-rich of volcanic rocks). Combined, they are known as rhyodacitic.
This merely reflects the ongoing and vigorous nature of the earth as it regularly spewed the molten rock that formed these islands. Added to the rocky mosaic on Merasheen were metamorphosed (transformed by heat or pressure) into silica-rich sandstones and shales. The island’s landscape is characterised by its relatively high relief and steep cliffs. Its shorelines are also less jagged due to faults and folds that followed a more NNW-SSE trend, the general orientation of the island. Nowadays, all is quiet, but it belies a highly boisterous past.
A little to the southeast of Merasheen lies Red Island, aptly named for its firey-coloured landscape. Millions of years ago, the region danced to the roar of molten lava surging from below. Eventually, a plume of lava known as a pluton or outcrop, would cool and over time, plate-tectonics, the jigging of the landscape, would expose the island on the surface.
These plutons were composed of granite resulting in Red Island’s vibrant hue. The plutons have been dated from the Devonian period, around 416 Mya to the Carboniferous period (318 Mya). And since people began to occupy the islands, it has naturally come to be known as Red Island. Elements of other islands, namely Bar Haven and the Ragged Islands also owe their origins from the depths of the earth. The rocks of Red Island also fractured in a particular manner along right angles, thus yielding its steep, but low cliffs and rolling interior.
In time, what changed the story was an ice age. Millions of years later, around 25,000 to 10,000 years ago, glaciers trailed over the landscape. With them, they readily carried their burden of rock, or ice-contact sediment known as till that was carried by the glaciers from many distant sources. This led to a range of formations, some of which were drumlins (an elongated hill or ridge of glacial drift), flutes (long ridges on the ground parallel to the glacier’s movement), and crag-and-tail (a plug of hard rock like granite with a “tail” of softer material in its lee) features. These formations are spread out over Placentia Bay’s bed, now hidden below its vast undulating waters.
Walking amongst the rocky outcrops and rolling hills affords us with an opportunity to pause and absorb the depth of time which surrounds us. We may touch the granite of Red Island or any of the other islands and surging within us is a feeling of deep respect and awe that resonates in our hearts. It is almost incomprehensible the time from when these rocks first began to form. Millions of years seem beyond our comprehension of time. Yet, here they sit. They offer distinct evidence of the timelessness that surrounds us. It is palpable. For a moment, running our hands along the various ridges and indentations on the rock or simply standing before a towering cliff, we feel the energy the silent rocks emanate. And for just a moment, we feel a connection with something that is much greater than ourselves. An eternal spirit.
Brushett, Denise 2008 “Late Wisconsinan Glacial History of Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, As Interpreted From Seabed Geomorphology and Stratigraphy,” Master of Science Thesis, Memorial University, St. John’s, NL
Catto, Norman 1998 “The pattern of glaciation on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland” Géographie physique et Quaternaire 52 (1), 1-24
“Fleeceflower” or “September Mist,” are names that will certainly evoke warmth and beauty or the gentle and charming, mild, shadowy days of September. However, given the sheer tenacity and unstoppable nature of this plant it is often known by other more descriptive names like Mile-a-Minute. Meet the Japanese Knotweed.
Having arrived in Canada in the nineteenth century, it has gradually made its appearance in every province except Saskatchewan and Manitoba. It’s likely only been in Newfoundland since some time in the twentieth century, probably the latter half of it. While at one time, this persistent plant was welcomed. Now, a century and a half later, as far as some are concerned, the knotweed is virtually taking over. The mood has dramatically changed. Now most just want to be rid of it. Still, some say, well, just hang on a minute.
Origins of the Knotweed
If you’re looking for its origins, you need to cast your eye to, as you might expect, the slopes of a volcano in Japan as well as in other countries in the southeast of our great planet. Beginning in the nineteenth century, individuals with an eye to the so-called exotic encountered these plants and thought they would make a beautiful addition to the gardens in their home countries of Britain and the United States. One Philipp Franz von Siebold, a European adventurer discovered this plant carpeting the exterior of a Japanese volcano and proceeded to transport it first to Leiden in the Netherlands. He then gave a good-hearted gift to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in Britain. Soon, anyone who was anyone gathered the Japanese knotweed into their arms throughout Britain as a popular ornamental plant and the rest is history. Likewise, by the late nineteenth century, this plant completed its journey to North America.
Here to Stay
The problem is that the Japanese knotweed has done exceptionally well in the numerous countries where it has now made a home for itself. The purple to green stems of this plant are hollow with raised nodes, giving it the appearance of bamboo (to which it is actually not related). These stems die back each autumn and in the spring, they go on to re-grow to a maximum height of around 3-4 m (10-13 ft) in a single growing season. They apparently accomplish this at up to 8 cm per day. That’s not bad. If they are continually cut back, of course, this will impede their growth expectations. But left alone, they’ll reach 1 metre in three weeks. The leaves are generally quite broad (5-12 cm/2-4 ½ in) and long (7-14 cm/ 3-5 ½ in). By Autumn, delicate and small cream or white coloured flowers begin to appear.
Regardless of their beauty, many focus on the difficulties of being rid of the Japanese Knotweed. Apparently, they’re gifted with a root system that is intended to withstand the worst.
To make matters worse for the individual trying to eradicate them, they are equally gifted with a tolerance for a wide range of soil types, pH, as well as salinity. And just in case someone thought a good reduction in temperature would do the trick. Their rhizomes, sort of a creeping root stock, can survive temperatures of -35 °C (−31 °F) while extending 7 metres (23 ft) horizontally and 3 metres (10 ft) deep. The roots are strong, too, with asphalt and concrete posing no great obstacle for them. So, not only are they a hazard to a gardener guarding their plot, buildings and roadways also must beware. And while some may utter a poetic remark regarding their beauty or at the very least their obvious hardiness, others have one word for them—invasive.
Get the Invaders
In fact, they’re considered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to be one of the world’s 100 worst invading species. One can understand the frustration. It’s a plant we haven’t been able to control and that’s often a sticking point for humans. However, it depends on how one views the world. Despite all the variations in the qualities of climate, soil or water that covers our beautiful world, if we think of the planet as a whole, there can be no invasion. Much as humans did in our early years, moving out of Africa, at the time, there were no designated boundaries to brand us as an invasive species. If there had been, that’s what we would’ve been. So, from this perspective, Japanese Knotweed have merely moved on (with our help) and the goal is to find a way to live with that reality.
What About in Japan?
Some may say they’re obviously from Japan, what do they do? Well, in Japan, nature herself takes care of it, for where the knotweed resides keeps it in check. First of all, growing as they do on the scree of a volcano naturally impedes their growth. So, while they may be lush and rich in places such as Newfoundland and Labrador, they tend to be much smaller in their native land. Japan also presents a slightly more hostile environment and so the Japanese knotweed must contend with large herbs such as Bamboo, in addition to various natural pest, soil fungi and plant diseases. They’re kept in control.
In certain parts of Britain, efforts have been underway to adopt some of these natural checks. The insect known as Aphalara itadori is one of about 186 species of insects that feeds on the Japanese knotweed in Japan. In Britain as well as the United States, they have tested a range of insects known to control the knotweed in Japan. Unfortunately, the findings discovered the insects may well become a danger to their own native plants. So, thus far, everything but the A. itadori have been rejected. However, while many pinned their hopes on A. itadori, Scotland, for one. has passed a law stating now it is illegal to introduce a non-native species. Obviously, we’re going to have get a little more creative in our solution to the Japanese knotweed.
“If you Can’t Beat it, Eat it”
Some in Newfoundland are adopting the approach of many in Pennsylvania and have ceded defeat in eradicating Japanese Knotweed. Instead, they have decided it is better to wield knife and fork to at least come to terms with the unstoppable plant. If they are to a part of our diets, the general rule is to treat knotweed much as one would when using rhubarb or asparagus. The younger shoots are the easiest to use as they can be harvested by easily snapping or cutting them off at ground level when they are a mere few inches in height. They tend to send up multiple shoots during the spring and early summer, so tjat makes things a little easier for the knotweed aficionado. One word of warning. They are fairly high in emodin, a known laxative, so take care. Plus, they contain oxalic acids and anyone with or predisposed to kidney stones should probably give them a wide berth. Otherwise, they are a healthy option for food, not to mention for their medicinal attributes.
Japanese knotweed contain resveratol which is also found in grape skins and wine and they’re noted for herbal actions such as being antibacterial, antiviral, anti-spirochetal, immunostimulant, anti-inflammatory, central nervous system relaxant, brain and spinal cord protectant, anti-carcinogenic, vasodilator, cardioprotective, antithrombotic, hemostatic and astringent (see Stephen Buhner’s book Healing Lyme: Natural Prevention and Treatment of Lyme Borreliosis and Its Coinfections, published in 2005. An updated version is now available.). According to Buhner, Japanese Knotweed is useful against Lyme Disease given its ability to strengthen the body’s immune function.
It is also hoped to be able to play a role as an angiogenesis stimulant, being able to form new blood vessels (angiogenesis). As a result, it can play a role in the healing of damaged blood vessels, for instance with burns, chronic inflammations such as rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, and brain disorders like strokes and other forms of heart disease.
Leaving aside its value as a foodstuff or for its medicinal properties, Japanese knotweed also functions well geographically. With its substantial root system, it works wonders at preventing erosion. When the knotweed has grown, people have also discovered they function as a useful hedgerow.
So, it seems the knotweed does have some uses if we employ a little creativity and understanding. We had little to do with how it got to Newfoundland, but it’s here now. Like the multitude of plants and animals, ourselves included, who have moved around endlessly on this planet, they really have every right to be here. There’s nothing to lose, so you might as well fasten on your bib and enjoy what the knotweed has to offer.
It is on those calm, blue-sky days, when the surface of the water is like a smooth sheet of glass, that new worlds can be revealed. At these times, we marvel at the sheer vividness of the river bed or the edge of the sea shore. We are in awe of the colourful mosaic of rocks and plants that seemed to have just appeared. But not so.
Most of the time, we walk alongside any body of water with barely any thought towards what lies below the surface. It is at these moments when we spy the secrets lying below the surface and we are swept up into a majestic world filled with fronds, some long and wide, others slender and narrow all hypnotically swaying in the ebb and flow of the water. We have entered a whole new world.
There are a host of marine organisms, seaweeds or flowering plants (angiosperm), that grow along the bottom. Still kelp, a type of algae and eelgrass, a flowering plant are particularly noteworthy for the important roles that they play in the shallow water ecosystems in which they exist. Eelgrass also just so happens to be the only seagrass in Atlantic Canada. Both eelgrass and kelp quietly play a starring role in the life of Placentia bay.
Nature of Eelgrass
Eelgrass meadows, as they are known, are comprised of countless blades of these flowering plants. At about a ¼ inch in width and reaching lengths of around three feet, they generally remain completely submerged. Although, the depth at which eelgrass grows is ultimately decided by the light that is able to reach the bottom. When the tide is low, they are very distinctive with their vibrant bright green blades against the surface of the water. These plants also fare well in clear water and actually have a high minimum light requirement for their survival. The eelgrass meadows also have a long lifetime which can extend to decades and sometimes even for millennia.
Eelgrass is fairly robust, no doubt a quality that has helped this willowy plant to survive for so long. And while eelgrass possess an optimal salinity range of 20 to 26 ppt for photosynthesis, the plant is also tolerant of lower salinity levels of 5 to 35 ppt and even freshwater for a short time. However, eelgrass is unable to survive in oxygen free conditions (anoxic) or ones that are rich in mineral and organic matter, commonly referred to as eutrophic conditions. Eelgrass is equally versatile with regard to temperatures and can grow in a wide range of temperatures, from 10-25 °C and can withstand more extreme temperatures, from freezing to 35 °C. Eelgrass is a powerhouse of a plant and one that is able to share its strength with other species residing in the shallows of either rivers or other water bodies.
The blades lie at the surface when the tide has gone out. Their roots or rhizomes secure them firmly to the sandy, muddy or cobble-stoned bottoms where they reside. Thus secured to the surface, the blades of grass bend gracefully in the current. Although, despite the pleasant and placid appearance of the grass swaying in the flow, there is a functional element to the actions of the eelgrass.
Collectively, the myriad blades of eelgrass are able to stabilise the sediments and buffer shorelines. Once the eelgrass reaches a certain density, the assembly of grass blades is capable of moderating the wave energy and modifying the level of turbulence in the water. When looking at the surface of standing water, it is astonishing to see the effect of the eelgrass.
While the wind may be jostling the water elsewhere, the eelgrass acts to still the waves. By doing so, any of the sediment being held in the flowing water falls out of suspension, permitting more light to reach the eelgrass and be photosynthesised.
And photosynthesis lies at the heart of how and why eelgrass is able to perform the central function it does in the ecosystem. Eelgrass habitats actually rank amongst the most productive ecosystems on earth, a position that has it rubbing shoulders with the likes of the tropical rainforests, coral reefs, and wetlands of our planet. This is no small achievement. The eelgrass function at a high level of production, primarily due to the steady ongoing turnover of eelgrass leaves, as well as the numerous algae that grow on the leaf surfaces of the eelgrass. The algae provide one more element within the eelgrass meadows that can support fauna seeking food and protection. Linked to its high level of production, eelgrass also releases oxygen into the water column, which is a hypothetical cylinder of water stretching from the surface to the bottom of a water body. While doing so, eelgrass also performs one other function by filtering the water in the water column. These small blades of grass have a heavy workload.
As Part of the Food Web
The organisms that grow on the eelgrass are a primary food source for various species of invertebrates. Given its high level of production, eelgrass plays a pivotal role in the food web in which it exists. A part of the food web includes the numerous fish and invertebrates such as crabs of various kinds that are nestled in the dense meadow of grass. For these creatures, the eelgrass serves as a source of food, as well as protection. Thus, it is no surprise that the eelgrass is a favoured location for invertebrates in particular. Eelgrass is also an ideal nursery habitat for juvenile fish, in particular for Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). So, who could ask for anything more? There is abundant food for the growing fish and the ample cover of the blades of eelgrass ensures that it is a place of safety. However, it is not all that safe for every creature seeking cover. Apparently while the level of predation diminishes substantially within the eelgrass bed, it actually increases along the edge. It makes sense that any organism seeking protection within the eelgrass will fare better in larger continuous expanses of eelgrass than in smaller patches. This is simply because there are far more edges in the latter than in the former. Life in the bay can be touch and go.
The high productivity of eelgrass also means the speed with which the it replaces itself leaves a lot of eelgrass fragments flowing in the current. Nothing goes to waste as this material become a source of food for a host of bacteria, fungi, and protozoans (largely single-celled organisms). Given the current, this material can be transported great distances where the eelgrass debris can feed other species.
With all these glowing words, eelgrass is like a poster child for many scientists studying this vital element of the various ecosystems in which it resides. Accordingly, eelgrass is considered to be a keystone species wherein, much as the name implies, without the eelgrass, the structure will weaken and begin to crumble.
Unfortunately, in recent years, this is exactly what scientists have been observing. During the 1930s, the eelgrass population faced a microscopic, yet grievous threat for eelgrass on both sides of the Atlantic. At this time, the eelgrass was forced to contend with something aptly known as a “wasting disease,” the result of the persistent bacteria, Labyrinthula. zosterae. The disease spreads either through direct contact or detached parts that drift in the current, an all too common phenomenon. The disease is merciless. Necrotic lesions form creating a type of slime mould that darkens the blades of grass. Eventually the mould destroys the cells responsible for photosynthesis. And without the life-giving energy of the sun, the eelgrass simply dies. Ultimately, at the time, the “wasting disease” resulted in a loss of roughly 90% of North Atlantic eelgrass, something that required several decades for the eelgrass to recover. The disease has re-appeared since the 1930s, albeit with less of a lasting impact. However, the threat remains.
Challenges to Eelgrass
This very real threat is joined by the all-too-common perils of the sea—human-related activity. Around the world, the impact of our behaviour on eelgrass has been felt by such things as human settlement. This has led to a general decline in the distribution of the eelgrass beds globally.
While human-related activities carry their challenges, yet another substantial threat for eelgrass has been the arrival of a new species—the European green crab. This species made its first appearance in Canadian waters in 1951 in New Brunswick. Since this time, its made headway into other waters of the Maritimes. Eventually, it did find its way to Newfoundland in 2007.
The European green crab can be found primarily in shallow waters such as saltwater marches, sandy beaches or rocky coasts. It is less than desirable to have around, as it is very determined in its efforts to predate and feed and will guard its territory vigorously. It is a survivor. In fact, it has an edge in the fact it can survive out of water for several days. What’s more, they can also tolerate a wide range of temperatures and salinity. Together, these qualities make the European Green crab a difficult species with which to deal.
As a voracious predator, it is actually able to change the balance between species in an ecosystem and impact their diversity. In many cases, it can out-compete the native crabs for food. In terms of the eelgrass, their impact is generally happenstance, as they tend to uproot or cut the eelgrass while digging for prey or making burrows. However, given the central role of eelgrass in the ecological habitat, this effect is less than desirable. Hence, efforts are underway to study and control the presence of European Green crabs in the waters, specifically Placentia Bay, where they were first noted.
Beginning in 2018, a five year project included a range of specialists, including research scientists, graduate students, staff from ACAP Humber Arm (a not-for-profit organization serving the Bay of Islands and Humber Valley coastal regions of western Newfoundland which involved in habitat protection and restoration). The goals of the project are to restore eelgrass at particular sites in Placentia Bay.
Eelgrass quietly features in our lives, playing a central role in helping to maintain the health and resilience of our oceans. As part of the underwater forest that is majestically arrayed along our shores, we may not always notice them. But we will know if they are gone.
It is almost like clock-work, the dance of precious life that regularly occurs in places such as Placentia Bay. During the summer, schools of capelin swim into Placentia Bay where many of them, the males at least, are destined to end their days. However, life and death are intimately twined and so, at the same time, the capelin are also turning the key to not only ensure life for future capelin. Whether known as a keystone species, a lynchpin, or cornerstone, these slender, silvery fish are a paradox. However small and seemingly insignificant, without them, many of the animals who are part of Placentia Bay would face an uncertain future. Capelin reflect a small yet ever so robust element in the diversity of life of the bay. And it is all about diversity.
Thinking About Diversity
The idea of biological diversity or simply, biodiversity, is sweeping in nature and is applicable at different levels. So, it is possible to think of species or “organismal diversity” as the variety of particular species in a region. Finally, “ecosystem diversity” refers to the number and variety of ecosystems, a measure that can be complicated by the fact that the boundaries of ecosystems are rarely defined. Ecosystem diversity may be a reflection of the variety of ecosystems within a region or a single ecosystem. Single ecosystems with species native to that particular region or “endemic species” also add to global diversity.
In Placentia Bay, species come in all shapes and sizes, all with their own unique characteristics. And while the Bay may look immense and vacant, the wind often stirring its surface, it is teeming with life of all sorts, from microscopic algae to gargantuan blue whales whiling away in the bay. Scientists have given us a sense of the different animals, including the birds, marine mammals, fish and shellfish, all of who belong to the bay. Other species merely stop by for a visit. Amongst these creatures are countless insects, invertebrates and other small and microscopic species—some yet to be discovered—who make a home for themselves in Placentia Bay. Each and every one, through their interactions, is somehow interconnected by their common pursuit of life, a reflection of the diversity that abounds in the bay.
At the same time, biodiversity is characterised by “genetic diversity” or the variety of genes that form our collective genetic blueprints. This is the quality that translates into the variability that characterises a species—eye colour, the speed of maturity, nature of the feathers, resistance to disease, and countless other relevant attributes. This aspect of diversity helps to determine how a plant or animal will interact with one another and with their local environmental conditions.
Finally, think of “ecosystem diversity.” Similar to the various species, ecosystems come in a wide assortment of types, everything including estuaries, marshes, lagoons, or shoreline ecosystems, all of which can be found in Placentia Bay. We can think of the various ecosystems in Placentia Bay where myriad interacting organisms, large and small, live in accordance with non-living elements of their environment. It may be the barachoix estuaries in places such as Ship Cove or Big Barasway. Elsewhere in Placentia Bay, eelgrass meadows offer a haven for varied organisms that help to nurture the biodiversity of the bay. And there is no better species to exemplify the species richness of the bay than the capelin, our tiny but unsung hero. They occupy a unique place in the diversity of animals who spend time in the bay.
Capelin - Our Unsung Heroes
Despite the significant role they play in Placentia Bay, capelin are relatively small, with the males ranging up to a maximum length of 20 cm while the females can grow to about 25cm. These cold-water fish spend much of their time in the open water of the sub-Arctic in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Around Newfoundland, scientists believe there to be four stocks, one of which occupies an area that includes Placentia Bay. Capelin generally reach maturity at three to four years of age and while alive, the health and well-being of many other fish and mammals hinge on their behaviour in places like Placentia Bay.
Capelin are closely bound to a wide array of species, including ourselves. Belonging to the family osmeridae, these smelts originated in the North Pacific, only migrating to the North Atlantic over the past few million years. Known as planktivores, the capelin feed on a smorgasbord of food, such as planktonic crustaceans which simply drift in the sea, copepods (small crustaceans), euphausiids, better known as krill, amphipods (crustaceans lacking a carapace), marine worms, and small fishes. Quite a sizeable menu.
Despite their wide-ranging appetites, Calanus finmarchicus, a type of copepod, are one of favoured prey species of capelin. The key quality about the capelin is that they occupy and dominate a vital spot in the food chain or trophic level wherein, they prey on particular species and then, they in turn become the prey for other fish and marine mammals. So without them, a link in the food chain is missing.
Capelin are a particularly valuable fish by virtue of their nature. They are an “oily fish,” rich in lipids which are essential “energy food.” Their place in the food chain is a reflection of the vitality of the bay, every year touching off a unique dance amongst the many participating species.
Things get moving around March and April. This is when capelin begin to swim inshore to spawn on beaches such as those at Point Verde and Gooseberry Cove on the Cape Shore of the Avalon peninsula. Not all capelin spawn on beaches. Some of the capelin stocks around Newfoundland actually do spawn offshore, in particular, on the “tail” of the Grand Banks (NAFO 3NO). And some capelin have been known to spawn in subtidal areas that were adjacent to spawning beaches where the water temperatures had been too warm. In one location (Bellevue Beach), the scientists found that the capelin spawned on the beach until the water reached an upper range for spawning, at which time, spawning took place along the bottom, something that is known as demersal spawning. While capelin are Arctic-Boreal species and have evolved to survive and thrive in polar temperatures, they do require higher temperatures for successful reproduction. So, temperature of the prospective beach appears to be a factor.
When the capelin do come ashore to spawn, it is an activity accompanied by a supreme and yet expected sacrifice in that the females are likely the only ones who will survive the encounter. It is the way things work. Capelin spawning is an event that has changed since the early 1990s. Nowadays, the capelin spawning tends to occur around a few weeks to a month later than it did prior to the 1990s.
During the early portion of the 1990s, the capelin experienced a major biomass (or the total number of organisms in a particular area), decline, one from which the species has yet to recover. As a hint of the substantial change, in the NAFO SA2 + Divisions 3KL, in 1990, the capelin biomass plummeted from an estimated 6.9 million tonnes in 1990 to around 100,000 tonnes in the following spring. This substantial drop coincided with a particularly cold period and at the time, capelin apparently moved south and east to warmer waters where zooplankton may have been more available. This remained the situation from 1991 to 1994.
While the capelin stock levels had returned to more moderate levels from 2013 to 2015, they have since returned to those more typical of post-1991 period. It is not yet exactly clear what has caused the change. Although, the general belief holds that feeding conditions in the spring and fall and the relationship with the seasonal sea-ice retreat have had a role to play.
According to some scientists, the late spawning time for the capelin during the early 1990s was tied to the smaller size of the fish and below normal sea temperatures. The lower temperature of the water delayed the production of zooplankton. And like a domino effect, this, in turn, set everything back, including the maturation of the capelin, their migration, and finally their spawning. Other scientists have pointed to the timing of the seasonal sea-ice retreat which was taking place later than it had customarily been occurring. These result of these changes then rippled through the system, eventually altering the spawning time for the capelin. How it appeared to function was something like this—the retreat of the seasonal sea-ice in the spring would set off a bloom of phytoplankton which, in turn would feed zooplankton. So, the various forces that interact and affect the seasonal sea ice drive both the biomass and timing of the capelin spawning.
Calamus finmarchicus, a species of zooplankton feed heavily on the spring phytoplankton. And then, helping to close the food chain, Calamus finmarchicus just so happen to be one of the favourite foods of capelin. And if this is in any way delayed, it would alter the dynamics of the system, meaning capelin would only be ready to spawn later than usual. Capelin are particularly sensitive to environmental changes and can even function as a “canary,” providing an alert to temperature shifts.
Regardless of how, when, where or why, the capelin spawning has remained a special time for many people around Newfoundland. For decades, it is a tradition that has been passed on ever so gently through the years, from grandparent to grandchild. That it continues to happen is really the primary concern, a way of life that somehow assures us that maybe some things never change. Everyone eagerly awaits the time when the capelin will “roll,” likely a reference to the tendency of the fish, caught in the rolling waves, to wash ashore, their slithery bodies racing in and out with the swish and swash of the waves. It is now an iconic scene. All eyes are fixed on the oncoming waves, almost entranced. There is an unmistakable energy in the air. People of all ages with nets of every description on hand can be seen arrayed along the beach to catch the capelin. Some Newfoundlanders have been following this tradition for as long as they can remember. It is an unspoken union with the sea that, every year, pulls them back to the shore.
While people are intent on gathering the capelin into their nets, other creatures who grace the underwater thoroughfares of the bay are equally drawn by this miniscule fish. All of the whales who spend time in Placentia Bay—humpback, fin, minke, pilot, and sei—dine on capelin for part of their sustenance. The harbour porpoise and the harp seal are also known to rely in part on this tiny but indispensable species. And one species has remained as closely connected to capelin as it has to the people of Newfoundland—cod. Their lives follow a similar path and where one is found, the other is not far behind. Other species such as American plaice also depend on this humble fish for at least part of their sustenance.
Although, of all the species bound to capelin, humpback whales possess the most memorable place in our minds, their massive bodies leaping into the air with what always appears as nothing less than a jubilant celebration of life. Measuring around 12 to 16 metres in length and weighing in at 25-30 metric tons, these grand creatures of the sea begin to arrive in the waters of Newfoundland in April. And they are hungry. The goal will be to replenish and build their blubber which will be needed on their return migration to the subtropical and tropical regions where they breed. These gentle giants offer one of the most fascinating and mesmerising acrobatic spectacles when they are feeding.
While feeding, they have several tricks up their sleeves. One method is to simply charge into an unsuspecting school of capelin with their mouths open. But sometimes a little deception helps. One ingenious method that humpbacks use is to corral the schools of capelin. When encircling the capelin, they release air underwater to form numerous bubbles in order to create what amounts to a “bubble-net.” Afterwards, each of the whales take turns lunging towards the bubble structure, and open-mouthed, they devour thousands of capelin.
Awaiting a Smorgasbord
It is not difficult to appreciate the central role of capelin when looking at the array of species that rely on it as a food source. These small fish have a big impact. Much like the humpback whale, the fin, sei and minke whales also feed on the capelin. After the blue whale, fin whales are the second largest and one of the swiftest animals in the ocean. Although, unlike the humpback, these sleek whales tend to remain offshore. Likewise, the Sei whale also predominantly remains offshore and after the blue and the fin whales, it is longest. The smallest of the baleen whales, the minke whale is commonly seen in close proximity to the humpback whales.
Another marine mammal who awaits the arrival on the capelin are the harp seals. Although harp seals spend the majority of their lives at sea, they gravitate to the southern reaches of their customary territory around late February to mid-March in order to give birth. Feeding their pups is an all-consuming period, a time when they rely heavily on fish such as the capelin. Seals are fairly respectable divers, descending as deep as 370 m for around 16 minutes. They likely use their highly sensitive vibrissae or whiskers to detect the location of schools of capelin. They have not got much time to lose. The idea is to make certain that pup will be ready after 12 or so days when it will be weaned and the mother prepared to mate again.
Similarly, harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) include capelin in their diet. These small and sedate odontocetes or toothed whales tend to be found over the continental shelves of the northern hemisphere and are the smallest ones in Atlantic Canada. Those who are found in Placentia Bay are part of the Newfoundland/Labrador subpopulation, the others being Gulf of Maine/Bay of Fundy, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and West Greenland. Being small and having limited ability to store energy, the harbour porpoises must eat frequently. Although the harbour porpoises are usually found feeding alone, when together, they use the seafloor as a way to corral the the capelin. Harbour porpoises have also been known to fish closely together, collectively herding the capelin to the surface where they can be eaten. It pays to work together sometimes.
Above is a Northern Gannett (Source Wikipedia)
Amongst seabirds, gannets make up another species who await the arrival of the capelin. Gannets are renowned for their ability to execute breathtaking dives into the deep waters further off shore. Sometimes, several may be flying overhead and suddenly, they begin dropping, one after the other. While it is with a mixture of awe and anxiety to watch them, the thought that one of them is sure to collide with another, gannets are too skilled to allow such a misadventure to occur. Once underwater, certain longer dives will witness the gannets propelling themselves in a type of “plunge-pursuit,” their wings being used to help them to manoeuvre towards schools of capelin. Afterwards, they rise back to the surface with their prize.
Meanwhile, like the whales and other marine mammals who rely on capelin to arrive, gulls similarly await their movement inshore. And when it happens, they will be never far behind fretting and fussing about at the water surface and claiming a cut of this waterborne treasure. Whether it happens to be humpback whales netting the capelin from below or people doing so from above, a cloud of gulls will almost always be overhead, darting and diving, determined to find a morsel or two. During the early 1990s when the arrival of the capelin had been delayed, scientists working on Great Island, NL, noted how gulls began to prey on Leache’s storm-petrels. The behaviour decreased significantly when, several weeks later than had been the norm, the capelin moved inshore. Such behaviour points to the important role that these silvern-like fish play in food webs that characterise places such as Placentia Bay.
Key Role of the Cod
Of all the species whose livelihoods are closely connected to the capelin, none seem to be as harmonised with this small titan as the cod. The two engage in one of those water bourne dances that forever unites predator and prey. As long as anyone can remember, the cod would migrate inshore at a time that coincided with the capelin spawning migration. Once the two met, the cod would feed voraciously on the capelin both during and following capelin spawning.
Throughout the early years of the 1990s, climatic changes led to particularly cold oceanic conditions that were the “final straw” for the cod. And after decades of over-fishing, their numbers plummeted. Along with the cod, like a tragic accompaniment, a similar fate befell the capelin.
After the ups and downs that followed the period when the brakes were violently and unexpectedly applied to the cod fishery, thus yielding the subsequent moratoriums, cod remains in a sensitive place. Still, the largest spawning stock of Atlantic cod in the NW Atlantic occurs in Placentia Bay. The main spawning areas for cod in Placentia Bay are close to the shore and also on Burgeo Bank. St. Pierre Bank, and the Halibut Channel.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada reported that landings for both Canada and France (St. Pierre & Miquelon) have been substantially below the Total Allowable Catch (TAC ) since the 2009/10 season. Although the biomass index for 3Ps division values for post-moratorium to 2004 were higher than those in early 1990s, recent biomass estimates have been low.
While the highly variable diet of cod was once dominated by fish such as the capelin, these days, their food source is dominated by sandlance and crabs, particularly Snow crab. Given that the capelin appears to have not yet recovered from their fate in the 1990s, it is not surprising that the cod have had to alter their diet. And albeit a viable alternative, it is likely that an invertebrate-dominated diet would not be as nourishing as one dominated by fish.
Scientists have also noted high mortality rates for cod in the 5-10 age range, a fate that includes deaths as a result of fishing. However, it is very high considering the TAC had not been reached for several years. Why the mortality for this age range has increased and why is unknown. Is it perhaps due to their lower level of nutrition due to the loss of the capelin? The cod also appear to be displaying changes in terms of their “length-at-age.” This refers to an x-y graph plotting length on the y-axis and age on the x-axis. Therefore, with a declining length-to-age, it refers to length declining with increasing age. After declining from the early 1980s to mid-1990s and then increasing from the mid-1990s into the mid-2000s, in recent years, the length-to-age has been lower. From 2013 to 2016, it was the lowest has been since being recorded.
Much like the length-to-age measure, the “condition” factor of the cod has also diminished. This is a measure of the fish weight relative to its length and is regarded as a substitute for “energy reserves.” This measure generally declines during the winter and early spring. And similar to the length-to-age measure, that for the condition also improved during the period from 2008 to 2013 and again, from 2014 to 2016, it declined to the lowest level it has been since first being measured.
Despite the challenges that some species have faced, given the losses during the 1990s, capelin remain at the heart of the web of connections that characterise one of the central facets of Placentia Bay that is tied to its ecology. However small, their lives free and fleeting, capelin are a pivotal element in the wide diversity of plants and animals that collectively add a lustre of uniqueness to the bay. Such qualities lend to the spirit of the bay. And in much the same manner, there are other elements of the bay that likewise enhance its spirit.